Reflections on Medellin
During my recent travel in Medellin, Colombia there was a lot to like. To start, the people were friendly, generous and easy to talk to. When I looked lost on the street someone would almost always come up and ask if they could help. With Google Maps and GPS I’m almost never lost; I just like strolling around an interesting neighborhood with my curiosity and my camera, without some fixed objective in mind. Still, when the end of the world arrives, and the internet flickers and fades in the darkness, it’s reassuring to know that friendly Columbian people will be there to guide the way.
Set in a verdant valley in the Andes, Medellin was also full of beautiful nature, including a fabulous botanical garden, numerous parks and a zoo, along with spacious natural areas untouched by human development. It’s also full of great museums and other cultural attractions. For a long time the city required real estate developers to spend 2% of a new building’s budget on sculptures, and the city is full of great public art, for example in the atmospheric Plaza Botero.
The local women were lovely as well. With that latin passion though there was a sense that an angry father or jealous suitor might knife me if things took a wrong turn. Here in Vietnam the women are lovely as well and romance presents far fewer perils. People are always trying to introduce me to their single friend, sister or even daughter. I’m politely turning down opportunities rather than seeking new ones.
Colombia presented some challenges as well. Perhaps most significant for a traveling foodie, I found the local cuisine incredibly dull. A typical everyday meal consists of beans, rice, arepa (a thick corn tortilla) and a piece of fried meat or fish, all weakly seasoned with only salt and pepper. Bland boring bland. When I was hungry I did a lot of daydreaming about Thailand and Vietnam and their spicy, flavorsome cuisine. On the few occasions I tried the local cuisine, I wasn’t motivated to pick up my camera but here’s a photo of a very typical meal I found on the internet.
Yes, American food is much more than burgers and fries and I’m definitely aware that I’m oversimplifying Colombian food here. If I’d gone to classier, more expensive restaurants I would have of course found better food in Colombia. American food can also be really good…if you spend at least $50 for a meal. I do think though that it’s fair to judge a country’s cuisine by its regular everyday food. $100 meals taste good pretty much everywhere. Everywhere in the world simple dishes are what locals eat everyday, and with the world’s best cuisines these everyday dishes are tasty, healthy and cheap.
Postmodernism raises interesting questions about notions of inherent value. Is a Picasso really better than an African fertility carving or a child’s drawing on the refrigerator? So I’m not going to come out and say that Thai food is inherently better than Colombian. But this is my blog and I’m going to take a stand – I think Colombian food really sucks! Have you ever seen a Colombian restaurant outside Colombia?
Safety was another drawback in Medellin. Please don’t imagine drug lord Pablo Escobar ruling over the city while citizens cower in their homes. The government solved that problem a long time ago – Colombian forces used radio signal triangulation to locate him and he died in a shootout. What you have now is regular urban afflictions, from petty criminals to organized crime. The murder rate in Medellin is similar to that of less savory US cities, which is to say not good. The area of Medellin I stayed in (Poblado) looked like a posh area of Tokyo and was quite safe. In some areas of the city though you shouldn’t walk around at night. Given that I do take certain precautions, I had no concerns about traveling there but there’s too much crime to consider it as a long term base.
More substantially, I felt a bit lonely in Colombia, and I’m not completely sure why. Perhaps it’s because I spent two weeks in the US visiting family before the Colombia portion of this trip. During that portion of the journey, everyday was full of activities with family members so there was little time to be alone. I may have even craved a bit of solitude at times. So, when I landed in Medellin, I went from being around family members every day to being alone in a place where I knew no one, and this may partly explain feeling a bit isolated.
It’s also possible that deep into this month long trip I was simply tired of living out of a suitcase and missed Vietnam and my friends and rock star love life.
For whatever reason, while I rarely feel lonely in my regular expat life or in most travels, I felt that from time to time in Colombia.
How to be lonely? Or, how to deal with any negative emotion?
One of the ideas I love to shout from the rooftops in this blog is the Buddha’s central insight that how we think about what happens to us is much more important than what happens to us:
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make our world.
As I wrote in another post, after something negative happens to us, that experience often has a much longer second life in our minds. And how we think about and act in response to life experiences is what makes or unmakes our happiness and peace of mind.
There are happy poor people and miserable rich people. Joyful paraplegics and really fucked up lottery winners.
The point isn’t of course to seek out problems. It’s to recognize that misfortune visits all of us. To my mind, having a helpful way of dealing with difficulty would be a pretty cool superpower.
So, feeling alone in Colombia gave me a great opportunity to ask myself questions like “What’s a useful way to think about these feelings?” and “What are helpful ways to act?”.
If we think about it, common responses to negative emotion can be really unhelpful and increase the intensity of the difficult feelings. Like children who bicker about something and then, perhaps after a parent intervenes, grow even more cross and argue about their argument (“He started it!”), when negative emotions arise there is a tendency for the initial feeling to be followed by thoughts and worries about the emotion.
For example, when we’re sad, we can sometimes dwell on that and start to worry if something is wrong with our life. This thought can lead our minds down other long and emotionally rocky paths, for example about work or relationship troubles, or even just to everyday laments over eating too much Ben & Jerry’s or the difficulty of watching just one episode of Game of Thrones.
Or, when we get angry at someone we may then scold ourselves for failing to control our temper. Then maybe we’re sad about this very human lapse and the sadness loop starts. Usually the initial feeling wasn’t that big a deal – these are normal human emotions! – but with the way we think about thinking, self-reinforcing waves of thought and feeling crash around inside our heads, which of course intensifies the power of the initial emotion. To state the obvious, this tendency is not contributing to our happiness or peace of mind.
The reason I have such love for the Buddha, the Dalai Lama and some other teachers of this tradition is that to my mind they offer by far the best way out of this trap. The fundamental flaw of human beings is that we chase after pleasure and flee from pain, but these cravings only create more unhappiness.
Happiness and peace of mind are possible only when we accept things as they are.
In this tradition, we’re encouraged to think of thoughts and feelings as fleeting travelers passing through our minds. When a negative emotion arises, we should simply note its presence without worry or judgement, and return to what we were doing. Oh, that’s sadness. Hmm, a bit of anxiety. This is loneliness. Freed from the need to analyze, worry and judge, these difficult visitors move on, much more quickly than if we fight with them and try to kick them out.
Obviously, we’re not perfect, and there will be times that our minds chase after some thought. This is just a new thought to note without judgement or worry. Unhelpful, distracting thoughts and feelings are always going to arise in our minds. The mindful response is to simply note them and return to what we were doing, whether working, a leisure activity or simply breathing (ie, meditation). The point is not to block or rid our minds of unhelpful thoughts. It’s to cultivate a helpful way of dealing with them.
Researchers have found that this habit of simply noting a negative thought or emotion can reduce its intensity by almost 50%.
So, when I felt lonely in Colombia, I found it really helpful to simply acknowledge that feeling, “I’ve just spent two weeks visiting family members and now I’m in a city where I know no one. These feelings are natural”. I found this peaceful acceptance so much more helpful than dwelling on the difficult feeling or fighting against it (and remember this approach can be applied to any negative emotion).
At this point I think it’s important to point out that responding to a difficult feeling by simply noting it doesn’t mean that we need to be completely passive. A promising solution can definitely be pursued. What we don’t need to do is dwell on the problem and spend much of the day running around the same mental hamster wheel. Self-reflection and thoughtful action is helpful. Endless, repetitive rumination is not.
When I was in Colombia, in addition to peacefully noting difficult feelings, I decided to make more of an effort to reach out to the people around me. As I mentioned, the Colombian people were super friendly and easy to talk to, and I speak a bit of Spanish from the years I spent living in Barcelona, Spain. I started making an extra effort to chat with the people I encountered (a fellow patron at a coffee stand, the other people hanging out in the parks I visited etc.). I found it easy to connect and quickly starting feeling better about the trip. I even found some great food in Medellin. Naturally it was Thai.
Here’s a video of my favorite meditation teacher, Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe, explaining the noting technique.
And here’s the web site for Headspace, the best online meditation community.